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Let your brain have a say in how you grow old


Despite Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease being conditions associated with growing older it is not all ‘downhill’ for mental fortitude, and aptitude, as the years add up.

In fact, studies from around the world indicate the brain, in some instances, can actually improve with age or find different pathways to deal with the challenges of changes.   

It is true that people process information more slowly as they age which, according to a study from German Ruhr University Bochum, is compensated for by creating an integrated communication network. Here’s how this works as the study findings reported. 

Ruhr researchers asked 27 test subjects — a mix of young and old people — to sort coloured circles into one of two categories. Some of the circles looked similar, and others were quite different. The participants all sorted the similar circles with ease, but older people struggled when asked to sort circles that were exceptions from the norm.

This was to be expected as moving from one thought to another becomes more of a challenge in age. What opened researchers’ eyes, though was measuring participants’ brain waves, and line of vision, during the exercise. They found that older people pay more attention to details and concentrate more intently than the younger subjects. This, ultimately, was why the older subjects completed the sorting task. 

The scientists at Ruhr plan to study whether training exercises can help older people to focus more intently on tasks. In the meantime, neurologists know that exercising, getting plenty of sleep and challenging yourself mentally can boost your brain.

On the other side of the world at the University of California, Berkley, age related changes are often compensated neural synapse changes creating a more ‘integrated’ network. 

There the researchers used brain scans to study two distinct groups—adults in their 20's and adults 60 years and older. Both groups were asked to perform four tasks to test their memory. Older participants showed increased neural connections while performing each of the tests.

These findings gel with neuroscientific research which show that, contrary to stereotypes we actually grow smarter in key areas in middle age which, with longer life spans, now stretches from our mid-40's to our mid to late 60's.

Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary's College of California and an internationally recognized authority on adult learning says: “Because of their greater capacity to empathize, older people can have a better sense of the things that may charge up another person's brain and get them excited."

Older people are also highly capable when it comes to the "define" aspect of human-centered design - that is, the unpacking and synthesizing of empathy findings into compelling needs and insights.

As we age, we are better able to anticipate problems and reason things out than when we were young. Small's research shows that our complex reasoning skills continue to improve as we get older.

But that particular capacity can have some drawbacks. Albert Einstein said that we can't solve problems through the same kind of thinking as when we created them. In other words, as we age, yesterday's thinking can form an invisible box that some may resist venturing out of today.

Keeping an open mind is one way to ensure that the door doesn’t close on problem solution. 

In the end Taylor’s prescription is simple. 

Nudge your neurons. Shake things up. Stay physically active. Keep doing different things. Challenge your assumptions. Become comfortable with ambiguity. Listen to differing points of view and develop the ability to accept differences. Travel. Learn different languages.


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Date Published: 19 March 2018

Review Date: 19 March 2022